Did Joseph have lustful motives for practicing polygamy?

Articles about Plural marriage
Doctrinal foundation of plural marriage
Introduction of plural marriage
Plural marriage in Utah
End of plural marriage

Did Joseph Smith institute polygamy because he had a "voracious sexual appetite"?

It is unjustifiable to argue that he and his associates were insincere or that they were practicing their religion only for power and to satisfy carnal desires

It is claimed by some critics of Mormonism that Joseph Smith (and/or other Church members) had a voracious sexual appetite, and that because of this, he instituted polygamy.

One might reasonably hold the opinion that Joseph was wrong, but in the face of the documentary evidence it is unjustifiable to argue that he and his associates were insincere or that they were practicing their religion only for power and to satisfy carnal desires. Those who insist that "sex is the answer" likely reveal more about their own limited perspective than they do of the minds of the early Saints.

Neutral observers have long understood that this attack on plural marriage is probably the weakest of them all

George Bernard Shaw, certainly no Mormon, declared:

Now nothing can be more idle, nothing more frivolous, than to imagine that this polygamy had anything to do with personal licentiousness. If Joseph Smith had proposed to the Latter-day Saints that they should live licentious lives, they would have rushed on him and probably anticipated their pious neighbors who presently shot him. [1]

Brigham Young matches the explanation proposed by Shaw. When instructed to practice plural marriage by Joseph, Brigham recalled that it "was the first time in my life that I had desired the grave." [2]

John Taylor had similar opinions:

I had always entertained strict ideas of virtue and I felt as a married man that this was to me…an appalling thing to do…Nothing but a knowledge of God, and the revelations of God…could have induced me to embrace such a principle as this…We [the Twelve] seemed to put off, as far as we could, what might be termed the evil day. [3]

Joseph knew these men intimately. He would have known their sensibilities. If it was "all about sex," why push his luck with them? Why up the ante and ask them to marry polygamously? It would have been easier for him to claim the "duty" singularly, as prophet, and not insist that they join him.

As non-Mormon church historian Ernst Benz wrote:

Mormon polygamy has nothing to do with sexual debauchery but is tied to a strict patriarchal system of family order and demonstrates in the relationship of the husband to his individual wives all the ethical traits of a Christian, monogamous marriage. It is completely focused on bearing children and rearing them in the bosom of the family and the Mormon community. Actually, it exhibits a very great measure of selflessness, a willingness to sacrifice, and a sense of duty. [4]

Furthermore, Joseph Smith would not permit other members’ sexual misconduct

For example, he refused to countenance John C. Bennett’s serial infidelities. [5] If Joseph was looking for easy access to sex, Bennett—mayor of Nauvoo, First Counselor in the First Presidency, and military leader—would have been the perfect confederate. Yet, Joseph publicly denounced Bennett’s actions, and severed him from the First Presidency and the Church. Bennett became a vocal opponent and critic, and all this could have been avoided if Joseph was willing to have him as a "partner in crime." The critic cannot argue that Joseph felt that only he was entitled to polygamous relationships, since he went to great efforts to teach the doctrine to Hyrum and the Twelve, who embraced it with much less zeal than Bennett would have. If this is all about lust, why did Joseph humiliate and alienate Bennett, who Joseph should have known he could trust to support him and help hide polygamy from critics, while risking the support of the Twelve by insisting they participate?

There were certainly easier ways to satisfy one’s libido, as one author noted:

Contrary to popular nineteenth-century notions about polygamy, the Mormon harem, dominated by lascivious males with hyperactive libidos, did not exist. The image of unlimited lust was largely the creation of travelers to Salt Lake City more interested in titillating audiences back home than in accurately portraying plural marriage. Newspaper representatives and public figures visited the city in droves seeking headlines for their eastern audiences. Mormon plural marriage, dedicated to propagating the species righteously and dispassionately, proved to be a rather drab lifestyle compared to the imaginative tales of polygamy, dripping with sensationalism, demanded by a scandal-hungry eastern media market. [6]

Those who became Mormons were those who were least likely, culturally, to be thrilled at the prospect of polygamy

Douglas H. Parker wrote,

Polygamy, when first announced to the Saints, was an offensive, disgusting doctrine, difficult to accept…The men and women who placed faith in the bona fides of the revelation were Victorian in their background and moral character. The hard test of accepting polygamy as a principle revealed and required by God selected out from the Church membership at large a basic corps of faithful members who, within the next few decades, were to be subjected to an Abraham-Isaac test administered by the federal government as God’s agent. [7]

Perhaps the best argument against the "lascivious" charge is to look at the lives of the men and women who practiced it. Historian B. Carmon Hardy observed:

Joseph displayed an astonishingly principled commitment to the doctrine [of plural marriage]. He had to overcome opposition from his brother Hyrum and the reluctance of some of his disciples. Reflecting years later on the conflicts and dangers brought by plural marriage, some church leaders were struck with the courage Joseph displayed in persisting with it. And when one recalls a poignant encounter like that between [counselor in the First Presidency] William Law and Joseph in early 1844, it is difficult not to agree. Law, putting his arms around the prophet’s neck, tearfully pleaded that he throw the entire business of plurality over. Joseph, also crying, replied that he could not, that God had commanded it, and he had no choice but to obey. [8]

One can read volumes of the early leaders’ public writings, extemporaneous sermons, and private journals. One can reflect on the hundreds or thousands of miles of travel on missionary journeys and Church business. If the writings of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Heber C. Kimball, George Q. Cannon and many others cannot persuade someone that they were honest men (even if mistaken) then one should sincerely question whether such a person is capable of looking charitably upon any Mormon.

Paul Peterson’s comment about the diaries of Joseph Smith resonates well in this regard:

I had not fully grasped certain aspects of the Prophet’s psyche and personality. After just a few pages into Personal Writings, [9] it became clear that Joseph possessed religious dimensions that I had not understood. For one thing, it was apparent I had underestimated the depth of his dependence upon Deity. The Joseph that emerges in Personal Writings is an intensely devout and God-fearing young man who at times seems almost helpless without divine support. And his sincerity about his prophetic calling is also apparent. If others were not persuaded of his claims, it could not be said that Joseph was unconvinced that God had both called and directed him. Detractors who claim that Joseph came to like the game of playing prophet would be discomfited if they read Personal Writings. Scholars may quibble with how true his theology is, but for anyone who reads Personal Writings, his earnestness and honesty are no longer debatable points. [10]

Did Joseph Smith have a youthful struggle with unchastity?

There is no evidence from Joseph's early writings that he struggled over much with immoral thoughts or behavior

Some critics charge that Joseph Smith had youthful struggles with immoral actions. They claim that these are what eventually led him to teach the doctrine of plural marriage. [11]

There is no evidence from Joseph's early writings that he struggled over much with immoral thoughts or behavior. Such an interpretation results on twisting the text, ignoring alternate possibilities, and ignoring Joseph's direct explanation of what he meant by the words which the critics twist. That they can produce nothing better strongly suggests that no evidence exists for their claim.

G. D. Smith clearly follows the Brodie tradition in painting Joseph as motivated by sexual needs. He assures us that "an examination of Smith’s adolescence from his personal writings reveals some patterns and events that might be significant in understanding what precipitated his polygamous inclination" (pp. 15–16). The reader is advised to buckle her seatbelt and put on a Freud hat.

Joseph, we are told, claims that "he confronted some uncertain feelings he later termed ‘sinful’ [a]t a time when boys begin to experience puberty" (p. 17). [12] G. D. Smith argues that this "leav[es] us to suspect that he was referring to the curious thoughts of an intense teenager" (p. 17). G. D. Smith presumes that Joseph’s later "cryptic words" describing how he "fell into transgression and sinned in many things" refer to sex.

The only evidence for a sexual component to Joseph’s sins is presumption and mind reading

As Sigmund Freud demonstrated, any narrative can be sexualized. In this case, the only evidence for a sexual component to Joseph’s sins is G. D. Smith’s presumption and mind reading.

He presumes that the Book of Mormon reflects Joseph’s mind and preoccupations, suggesting that "an elaboration might be found in the Book of Mormon expressions about ‘the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein’ (2 Nephi 2:29)" (p. 17). Or it might not. The Book of Mormon reference to "the will of the flesh" can hardly be restricted to sexual matters. Nephi1 notes that if he errs in what he writes, "even did they err of old; not that I would excuse myself because of other men, but because of the weakness which is in me, according to the flesh, I would excuse myself" (1 Nephi 19:6). Surely this does not imply that Nephi’s mistakes in record keeping stem from sexual sin. "By the law," we find in the chapter cited by Smith, "no flesh is justified . . . , no flesh . . . can dwell in presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah" (2 Nephi 2:4, 8). Clearly, "flesh" refers to unregenerate man, not specifically or merely to sexual sin.

The King James Bible, which inspired Book of Mormon language, likewise describes a Christian’s rebirth as son of Christ as "not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13). Clearly, the "will of the flesh" does not refer only to sexual desire, but to any carnality of the "natural man," who is an "enemy to God" (Mosiah 3:19; 16:5). Such usage has a venerable history in Christianity; it is difficult to imagine that G. D. Smith could be unaware of this.

G. D. Smith notes that Joseph admitted to being guilty of "vices and follies" and concludes, after an exegesis from Webster’s American Dictionary, that this phrase implied "sins great and small, which conceivably involved sex but were not limited to it" (pp. 17–18). His treatment of Webster is less than forthright. He quotes Webster’s second definition of vice as "‘every act of intemperance, all falsehood, duplicity, deception, lewdness and the like’ as well as ‘the excessive indulgence of passions and appetites which in themselves are innocent’" (p. 17). The first definition, however, reads simply "a spot or defect; a fault; a blemish." [13] Smith likewise characterizes folly as "an absurd act which is highly sinful; and conduct contrary to the laws of God or man; sin; scandalous crimes; that which violates moral precepts and dishonours the offender" (pp. 17–18). Yet, again, Smith has ignored an earlier definition in Webster, which describes vice as merely "a weak or absurd act not highly criminal; an act which is inconsistent with the dictates of reason, or with the ordinary rules of prudence. . . . Hence we speak of the follies of youth." [14]

For G. D. Smith’s interpretation to be viable, we must accept that in his personal histories Joseph was admitting serious or gross moral lapses. Yet there are other contemporary definitions for the terms that Joseph used—especially as applied to youth—that connote only relatively minor imperfections. Nonetheless, this dubious argument is the "evidence" that G. D. Smith adduces from Joseph’s personal writings.

It is a pity that G. D. Smith did not go further in analyzing Joseph’s histories. The 1838 account makes the Prophet’s intent transparent:

I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations, offensive in the sight of God. In making this confession, no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to commit such was never in my nature. But I was guilty of levity, and sometimes associated with jovial company, etc., not consistent with that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God as I had been. [15]

Joseph explicitly blocks the interpretation that G. D. Smith wishes to advance. Why ought we to accept Joseph’s 1832 witness—as warped by G. D. Smith’s interpretive lens—as useful evidence while ignoring an alternative explanation supported by Joseph’s other statements? G. D. Smith all but concedes this point two pages later, when he cites Joseph’s characterization of his "vices and folleys" as including "a light, and too often vain mind, exhibiting a foolish and trifling conversation" (p. 20). If this is so, why attempt to sexualize Joseph’s admitted imperfections? But within a few pages it has become for G. D. Smith an established fact that "another revelation, almost seeming to recall [Joseph] Smith’s teenage concerns about sinful thoughts and behavior, reiterated . . . ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery; and he that commiteth adultery, and repenteth not, shall be cast out’ (D&C 42:24)" (p. 49). But such an analysis depends entirely on what G. D. Smith has failed to do—establish that the teenage Joseph struggled with sexually sinful thoughts and behavior.

G. D. Smith’s other evidence from Joseph’s teen years consists in a brief reference to the Hurlbut-Howe affidavits. Here again Smith simply cites works from the Signature stable of writers, with no gesture to source criticism or acknowledgement of the problematic elements in these later, hostile accounts. [16]

See also Brian Hales' discussion
Many are quick to declare that Joseph's polygamy sprang from religious extremism and/or sexual desire. This article explores the difficulties that Joseph had with plural marriage, and evidence for what truly motivated his acts.

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Did Joseph Smith have a long history of "womanizing" before practicing plural marriage?

There is no good evidence to support the charge that Joseph was adulterous or had other "woman problems"

The charges are all late, at least second-hand, and typically gathered with hostile intent. Those making the claims are often verifiably wrong on other facts. The witnesses contradict each other, are sometimes ridiculous, and seem to be nothing but warmed-over gossip. Those who could have confirmed the stories did not. Many details bear the mark of outright fabrication.

Even more significantly, there is no contemporary account of witnesses accusing Joseph of unchastity in the Church's early years, save a single, second-or-third hand charge that was neither substantiated by those with an opportunity to do so, or repeated. Everything else is after-the-fact, often decades later. Given how anxious Joseph's enemies were to condemn him, it would be astonishing if he was known to be immoral without them noticing and taking advantage.

…the sources are not the past but only the raw materials whence we form our conception of the past, and in using them we inherit the limitations that produced them… [17]
- Dean C. Jessee

An early date for the first plural marriage revelation (see here) makes it more difficult for critics to charge that Joseph invented the idea of plural marriage to justify his "adultery" with Fanny Alger (see here). In response, some critics have charged that Joseph had a long history of adulterous scrapes predating 1831.

They want Joseph to be seen as a rake and womanizer. But was he?

Joseph Smith faced intense opposition throughout his life. Attacks on his moral character surfaced a few years after the Church's organization, though no such charges appeared before the organization of the Church.

A key source for these claims was an apostate Mormon, Doctor Philastus Hurlbut. Hurlbut joined the Church in 1833, but was excommunicated for immoral conduct while on a mission. Hurlbut became Joseph's avowed enemy, and Joseph even brought a peace warrant (akin to our modern "restraining order") against him because of threats on Joseph's life.

Hurlbut returned to the New York area, and gathered a collection of affidavits about Joseph and the Smith family. Hurlbut's reputation, however, was so notorious, that he gave the affidavits to Eber D. Howe of Painsville, Ohio. Howe disliked the Mormons, doubtless partly because his wife and daughter had joined the Church. Howe published the first anti-Mormon book using the affidavits: Mormonism Unvailed (1834).[18]

The Hurlbut-Howe affidavits have provided much anti-Mormon ammunition ever since. But, their value as historical documents is limited. There is evidence that Hurlbut influenced those who gave affidavits, and since some who gave them were illiterate, they may have merely signed statements written by Hurlbut himself.

That said, these charges continue to surface, and are sometimes used as a type of "introduction" to plural marriage. Critics seem to presume that because charges were made, those charges must be true to some extent—"where there's smoke, there must be at least a small fire." They then conclude that since these charges are true, they help explain Joseph's enthusiasm for plural marriage. It is difficult to prove a negative, but a great deal of doubt can be cast on the affidavits themselves, without even considering the bias and hatred which motivated their collection and publication.

Eliza Winters

One affidavit was provided by Levi Lewis, Emma Hale Smith's cousin and son of the Reverend Nathaniel Lewis, a well-known Methodist minister in Harmony.[19] Van Wagoner uses this affidavit to argue that:

[Joseph’s] abrupt 1830 departure with his wife, Emma, from Harmony, Pennsylvania, may have been precipitated in part by Levi and Hiel Lewis's accusations that Smith had acted improperly towards a local girl. Five years later Levi Lewis, Emma's cousin, repeated stories that Smith attempted to "seduce Eliza Winters &c.," and that both Smith and his friend Martin Harris had claimed "adultery was no crime." [20]

Van Wagoner argues that this "may" have been why Joseph left. But, we have no evidence of Levi and Hiel Lewis making the charge until the affidavits were gathered five years later. (Hiel Lewis' inclusion adds nothing; he gave no affidavit in 1833, and in 1879 simply repeated third hand stories of how Joseph had attempted to "seduce" Eliza.[21] At best, he is repeating Levi's early tale.)

A look at Lewis' complete affidavit is instructive. He claimed, among other things, that:

  • he heard Joseph admit "God had deceived him" about the plates, and so did not show them to anyone.
  • he saw Joseph drunk three times while writing the Book of Mormon
  • he heard Joseph say "he…was as good as Jesus Christ…it was as bad to injure him as it was to injure Jesus Christ."
  • he heard Martin Harris and Joseph Smith claim "adultery was no crime."
  • he heard Martin say that Joseph attempted to "seduce Eliza Winters," and that he didn't blame him.

There are serious problems with these claims. It seems extraordinarily implausible that Joseph "admitted" that God had deceived him, and thus was not able to show the plates to anyone. Joseph insisted that he had shown the plates to people, and the Three and Eight Witnesses all published testimony to that effect. Despite apostasy and alienation from Joseph Smith, none denied that witness.

The claim to have seen Joseph drunk during the translation is entertaining. If Joseph were drunk, this only makes the production of the Book of Mormon more impressive. But, this sounds like little more than idle gossip, designed to bias readers against Joseph as a "drunkard."

A study of Joseph's letters and life from this period make it difficult to believe that Joseph would insist he was "as good as Jesus Christ." Joseph's private letters reveal him to be devout, sincere, and almost painfully aware of his dependence on God.[22]

Thus, three of the charges that are unmentioned by Van Wagoner are extraordinarily implausible. They are clearly efforts to simply paint Joseph in a bad light: make him into a pretend prophet who thinks he's better than Jesus, who admits to being deceived, and who gets drunk. Such a portrayal would be welcome to skeptical ears. This Joseph is ridiculous, not to be taken seriously.

We can now consider the claim that Martin and Joseph claimed that adultery was no crime, and that Joseph attempted the seduction of Eliza Winters. Recent work has also uncovered Eliza Winters' identity. She was a young woman at a meeting on 1 November 1832 in Springville Township, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. While on a preaching mission with his brother Emer, Martin Harris announced that Eliza "has had a bastard child."

Eliza sued Martin for slander, asking for $1000 for the damage done to her "good name, fame, behavior and character" because his words "render her infamous and scandalous among her neighbors." Martin won the suit; Eliza could not prove libel, likely because she had no good character to sully.[23]

This new information calls the Lewis affidavit into even greater question. We are to believe that Martin, who risked and defended a libel suit for reproving Eliza for fornication, thinks that adultery is "no crime"? Eliza clearly has no reason to like Joseph and the Mormons—why did she not provide Hurlbut with an affidavit regarding Joseph's scandalous behavior? Around 1879, Eliza gave information to Frederick Mather for a book about early Mormonism. Why did she not provide testimony of Joseph's attempt to seduce her?

It seems far more likely that Eliza was known for her low morals, and her name became associated with the Mormons in popular memory, since she had been publicly rebuked by a Mormon preacher and lost her court suit against him. When Levi Lewis was approached by Hurlbut for material critical of Joseph Smith, he likely drew on this association.

Marinda Nancy Johnson

Van Wagoner describes another charge against Joseph:

One account related that on 24 March [1832] a mob of men pulled Smith from his bed, beat him, and then covered him with a coat of tar and feathers. Eli Johnson, who allegedly participated in the attack "because he suspected Joseph of being intimate with his sister, Nancy Marinda Johnson, … was screaming for Joseph's castration."

There is more to the story than this, however—much more. Van Wagoner even indicates that it is "unlikely" that "an incident between Smith and Nancy Johnson precipitated the mobbing." Unfortunately, Van Wagoner tucks this information into an endnote, where the reader will be unaware of it unless he checks the sources carefully.

Todd Compton casts further doubt on this episode. He notes that Van Wagoner's source is Fawn Brodie, and Brodie's source is from 1884—quite late. Clark Braden, the source, also got his information second-hand, and is clearly antagonistic, since he is a member of the Church of Christ, the "Disciples," seeking to attack the Reorganized (RLDS) Church.[24] Brodie also gets the woman's name wrong—it is "Marinda Nancy," not "Nancy Marinda." And, the account is further flawed because Marinda has no brother named Eli.[25]

Compton notes further that there are two other late anti-Mormon sources that do not agree with the "Joseph as womanizer" version. Symonds Ryder, the leader of the attack, said that the attack occurred because of "the horrid fact that a plot was laid to take their property from them and place it under the control of Smith." [26] The Johnson boys are not portrayed as either leaders, or particularly hostile to Joseph. It is also unlikely that the mob would attack Sidney Rigdon as well as Joseph if the issue was one of their sister's honor, yet as Rigdon's son told the story, Sidney was the first target who received much harsher treatment:

…the mob came and got Rigdon first. He was a man weighing about 225. As they draged him some distance over the frozen ground by his heels bumping the back of his head so that when they got him to the place where they were to put the tar and feathers on him he was insensible. They covered him with tar and feathers and pounded him till they thought he was dead and then went to get J. Smith… The mob covered him with tar and feathers and pounded him till they got tired and left them both on the ground. J. Smith soon after the mob left got up and went home not very badly hurt.

Sidney was attacked until the mob thought he was dead; Joseph seems almost an after-thought in this version: someone they will pound until tired, while Sidney is beaten until thought dead.[27]

Marinda Johnson had difficulties with plural marriage, but many years later would still testify, "Here I feel like bearing my testimony that during the whole year that Joseph was an inmate of my father’s house I never saw aught in his daily life or conversation to make me doubt his divine mission." [28]

It is clear, then, that little remains of this episode to condemn Joseph—and Van Wagoner seems to think so too, though he caches this fact in the endnotes.

Benjamin Winchester: "Close friend" of Joseph?

Van Wagoner continues to outline Joseph's supposed pattern of problems with women:

Benjamin F. Winchester,[29] Smith's close friend and leader of Philadelphia Mormons in the early 1840s, later recalled Kirtland accusations of scandal and "licentious conduct" hurled against Smith, "this more especially among the women. Joseph's name was connected with scandalous relations with two or three families."

There is again more to the story, and Van Wagoner again places it in the endnotes. Far from being a "close friend" of Joseph when he made the statement, Winchester was excommunicated after the martyrdom. Winchester claims he was excommunicated for being "[a] deadly enemy of the spiritual wife system and for this opposition he had received all manner of abuse from all who believe in that hellish system."

So, we have a late reminiscence, by someone who is now definitely not a "close friend and leader of Philadelphia Mormons" as he was in 1844. By his own admission, he was an excommunicate apostate and bitter opponent of plural marriage. And, all he can tell us is about rumors of "scandal" in Kirtland, and isn't even sure with whom or how many families.

Van Wagoner's habit of putting important details in the endnotes should trouble us more than these vague charges against Joseph in Kirtland—a period by which he had begun to practice plural marriage.

Winchester's other claims are not included by Van Wagoner. As with Levi Lewis' charges, the other claims demonstrate how unreliable Winchester is. He wrote that the Kirtland Temple dedication "ended in a drunken frolic." As one historian noted:

Such an accusation conflicts with many other contemporary accounts and is inconsistent with the Latter-day Saint attitude toward intemperance. If such behavior had been manifest, individuals would have undoubtedly recorded the information in their diaries or letters in 1836, but the negative reports emerged long after the events had transpired and among vindictive critics who had become enemies of the Church.

So, on issues which we can verify, Winchester is utterly unreliable. Why ought we to credit his vague, gossipy recall of early plural marriage?

Polly Beswick: The Two-Hundred Pound Domestic

The "best" sources on Joseph's early character have already been presented. The most creative, however, involves Polly Beswick, "a colorful two-hundred-pound Smith [servant who] told her friends" a tale better suited to a farce or bad situation comedy:

"Jo Smith said he had a revelation to lie with Vienna Jacques, who lived in his family" and that Emma Smith told her "Joseph would get up in the night and go to Vienna's bed." Furthermore, she added, "Emma would get out of humor, fret and scold and flounce in the harness," then Smith would "shut himself up in a room and pray for a revalation … state it to her, and bring her around all right."

One hardly knows where to start with this account. Van Wagoner notes that the story is second hand, but fails to mention that Polly is a known gossip. There is also no reference for Polly's claims—it is impossible to verify them, or know in what context they were given.

The description, however, seems totally implausible. No doubt, Emma Smith was challenged by plural marriage (see here). But, the image of Emma being petulant and then settling down once Joseph produces a "revalation" is totally out of character and quite different from how she behaved when Joseph did provide a revelation. I find this evidence utterly unconvincing and unreliable.

Martin Harris: Again?

The final source provided by Van Wagoner quotes Martin Harris from an interview purportedly given in 1873:

Martin Harris, Book of Mormon benefactor and close friend of Smith, recalled another such incident from the early Kirtland period. "In or about the year 1833," Harris remembered, Joseph Smith's "servant girl" claimed that the prophet had made "improper proposals to her, which created quite a talk amongst the people." When Smith came to him for advice, Harris, supposing that there was nothing to the story, told him to "take no notice of the girl, that she was full of the devil, and wanted to destroy the prophet of god." But according to Harris, Smith "acknowledged that there was more truth than poetry in what the girl said." Harris then said he would have nothing to do with the matter; Smith could get out of the trouble "the best way he knew how" [30]

We should not be surprised by now that this charge has many weaknesses. To begin with, Martin Harris was not in Kirtland at the time. The interview with Martin Harris supposedly occurred in 1873; it was not published until 1888. The reader's patience is also strained when we realize that Harris had returned to the Church by 1870, and died 10 June 1875 before the interview was published. Why would Harris give a "tell-all" interview about Joseph Smith three years after being rebaptized and endowed? He was safely dead before it was published, so the author had no need to worry about Harris' reaction.

Furthermore, in this account Martin Harris is portrayed as someone who definitely did not approve of adulterous conduct. This is in direct contradiction with the Levi Lewis affidavit, which has Harris claiming that adultery is no crime.

Other witnesses in Joseph's behalf

Though there are no contemporary witnesses of Joseph's bad behavior, there are witnesses to his good character. We have already seen how Marinda Nancy Johnson also testified of Joseph's good conduct, but there are other more contemporary witnesses.

Two of Josiah Stowell's daughters (probably Miriam and Rhoda) were called during a June 1830 court case against Joseph:

the court was detained for a time, in order that two young women (daughters to Mr. Stoal) with whom I had at times kept company; might be sent for, in order, if possible to elicit something from them which might be made a pretext against me. The young ladies arrived and were severally examined, touching my character, and conduct in general but particularly as to my behavior towards them both in public and private, when they both bore such testimony in my favor, as left my enemies without a pretext on their account.[31]

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Learn more about Joseph Smith: character
Wiki links
FAIR links
  • Don Bradley, "Knowing Brother Joseph: How the Historical Record Demonstrates the Prophet’s Religious Sincerity," Proceedings of the 2023 FAIR Conference (August 2023). link
  • Gregory Smith, "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Plural Marriage* (*but were afraid to ask)," Proceedings of the 2009 FAIR Conference (August 2009). link
  • Brian C. Hales and Gregory L. Smith, "A Response to Grant Palmer's 'Sexual Allegations against Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Polygamy in Nauvoo'," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 12/8 (10 October 2014). [183–236] link
  • "Joseph Smith and fraud allegations," BH Roberts Foundation print-link.

Stephen H. Webb: "Evidence That Demands Our Amazement... Joseph Smith was a remarkable person"

Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:[32]

By any measurement, Joseph Smith was a remarkable person. His combination of organizational acumen with spiritual originality and personal decorum and modesty is rare in the history of religion. He was so steadfast in his ability to inspire men and women through times of great hardship that none of those who knew him could claim to fully understand him. He knew more about theology and philosophy than it was reasonable for anyone in his position to know, as if he were dipping into the deep, collective unconsciousness of Christianity with a very long pen. He read the Bible in ways so novel that he can be considered a theological innocent—he expanded and revised the biblical narrative without questioning its authority—yet he brusquely overturned ancient and impregnable metaphysical assumptions with the aplomb of an assistant professor. For someone so charismatic, he was exceptionally humble, even ordinary, and he delegated authority with the wisdom of a man looking far into the future for the well-being of his followers. It would be tempting to compare him to Mohammed—who also combined pragmatic political skill and a genius for religious innovation—if he were not so deeply Christian. [Title is Webb's.][33]:95


  1. George Bernard Shaw, The Future of Political Science in America; an Address by Mr. Bernard Shaw to the Academy of Political Science, at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, on the 11th. April, 1933 (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1933) as cited in Richard Vetterli, Mormonism, Americanism and Politics (Salt Lake City: Ensign Publishing, 1961), 461–462.
  2. Brigham Young, "Plurality of Wives—The Free Agency of Man," (14 July 1855) Journal of Discourses 3:266.
  3. John Taylor, "President John Taylor's Recent Trip To Bear Lake, Selections from his Discourses delivered in the Various Settlements," (1883) Journal of Discourses 24:232.
  4. Ernst Benz, "Imago dei: Man as the Image of God," FARMS Review 17/1 (2005): 223–254. off-site
  5. For an extensive discussion, see Danel W. Bachman, "A Study of the Mormon Practice of Polygamy Before the Death of Joseph Smith," (1975) (unpublished M.A. thesis, Purdue University).
  6. Richard Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1986), 89.
  7. Douglas H. Parker, "Victory in Defeat—Polygamy and the Mormon Legal Encounter with the Federal Government," Cardozo Law Review 12 (1991): 814.
  8. B. Carmon Hardy, Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 9; an account of this encounter between Joseph and William can be found in Joseph W. McMurrin, "An Interesting Testimony / Mr. Law’s Testimony," Improvement Era (May 1903), 507–510.
  9. He here refers to Dean C. Jesse’s landmark volume Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1984).
  10. Paul H. Peterson, "Understanding Joseph: A Review of Published Documentary Sources," Joseph Smith: The Prophet, the Man, edited by Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1988), 109–110.
  11. George D. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy: "...but we called it celestial marriage" (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2008), 15–22. ( Index of claims , (Detailed book review)); Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 4–5.
  12. G. D. Smith cites Joseph’s 1832 account from Dean C. Jessee (editor), The Papers of Joseph Smith: Autobiographical and Historical Writings (Vol. 1 of 2) (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1989), 1:1–6. ISBN 0875791999
  13. Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828), s.v. "vice."
  14. Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828), s.v. "folly."
  15. JS-H 1꞉28 (emphasis added)
  16. G. D. Smith cites Rodger I. Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990); Richard S. Van Wagoner, Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994); Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996–2003); Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004); and Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville [Ohio]; Ann Arbor, Michigan: printed and published by the author, 1834). There is no mention of or interaction with such critiques as Hugh W. Nibley, The Myth Makers (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1961); Nibley, Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass; Richard L. Anderson, "The Reliability of the Early History of Lucy and Joseph Smith," Dialogue 4 (Summer 1969): 15–16; Anderson, "Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reappraised," BYU Studies 10:3 (1970): 283–314; Anderson, "The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching," BYU Studies 24 (Fall 1984): 492–94; Anderson, review of Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined, by Rodger I. Anderson," FARMS Review of Books 3/1 (1991): 52–80; and Thomas G. Alexander, review of Early Mormon Documents, Vol. 2, ed. Dan Vogel, Journal of Mormon History 26/2 (Fall 2000): 248–52.
  17. Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1984), xiv, italics in original.
  18. For discussion of the affidavits, see Hugh W. Nibley, The Myth Makers (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1961); Hugh W. Nibley, Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass: The Art of Telling Tales About Joseph Smith and Brigham Young (Vol. 11 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by David J. Whittaker, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1991); Richard L. Anderson, "The Reliability of the Early History of Lucy and Joseph Smith," Dialogue 4 (Summer 1969): 15–16; Richard L. Anderson, "Joseph Smith's New York Reputation Reappraised," Brigham Young University Studies 10:3 (1970): 283–314; Richard Lloyd Anderson, "The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching," BYU Studies 24 (Fall 1984): 492-494.Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Review of Joseph Smith's New York Reputation Reexamined by Rodger I. Anderson," FARMS Review of Books 3/1 (1991): 52–80; Thomas G. Alexander, "Review of Dan Vogel (Editor) Early Mormon Documents, Vol. 2," Journal of Mormon History 26/2 (Fall 2000): 248–252.
  19. A. Brant Merrill, "Joseph Smith's Methodism?" letter to the editor, Dialogue 16/1 (Spring 1983): 4–5.
  20. Except where noted, I have taken the accusations of immorality against Joseph from Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1989), 4–5. Van Wagoner takes no time to analyze these charges—he simply drops them on the reader and moves on. One reviewer criticized this tendency in both his volume on polygamy and Sidney Rigdon, writing, "He cites negative reports of early episodes but buries his suspicion for or rejection of the account in a note. But if it is not to be trusted, why cite it in the first place?" [David J. Whittaker, "Review of Richard Van Wagoner's Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess," Journal of Mormon History 23/1 (Spring 1997): 193.]
  21. Hiel Lewis, "Mormon History," Amboy Journal (6 August 1879); cited by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, 2nd ed. (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 64.
  22. See remarks in this vein in Paul H. Peterson, "Understanding Joseph: A Review of Published Documentary Sources," in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, the Man, ed. Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1988), 110.
  23. Mark B. Nelson and Steven C. Harper, "The Imprisonment of Martin Harris in 1833," Brigham Young University Studies 45/4 (2006). (My thanks to David Keller for bringing the article to my attention in this context.)
  24. Todd M. Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 230–232: citations to other accounts derive from Compton's treatment, except where noted.
  25. Compton notes this, as does Van Wagoner's footnote. Ronald V. Huggins, "Joseph Smith's 'Inspired Translation' of Romans 7," Dialogue 26/4 (Winter 1993): 180–181, footnote 59 relies on Van Wagoner, but argues that Joseph's own account (in William Mulder and A. Russell Mortensen, eds., Among the Mormons (New York: Knopf, 1969), 67) mentions an Eli being present at the attack. While Smith, History of the Church, 1:260 mentions Eli Johnson, Johnson is not present in any of the scholarly versions of Joseph's diaries such as Jessee, ed., Personal Writings , Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith: Autobiographical and Historical Writings, vol. 1 (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 1989), or Scott H. Faulring, ed., An American Prophet's Record : The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1987).
  26. Symonds Ryder, "Letter to A. S. Hayden," 1 February 1868 in Amos S. Haydon, Early History of the Disciples in the Western Reserve (1876); cited by Van Wagoner, Sidney Rigdon, 114–115. A second account is also cited by Compton: S.F. Whitney [brother of NK Whitney, a Reverend], in Arthur B. Demming (editor), Naked Truths About Mormonism 1 (January 1888): 3–4.
  27. John M. Rigdon, "Lecture Written by John M. Rigdon on the Early History of the Mormon Church," 9; transcript from New Mormon Studies CD-ROM, Smith Research Associates, 1998 (emphasis added).
  28. Marinda Hyde, Interview, cited in Edward W. Tullidge, The Women of Mormondom (New York: 1877), 404.
  29. It should be noted that Van Wagoner incorrectly cites "Benjamin F. Winchester." It should be "Benjamin Winchester". See Brian C. Hales and Gregory L. Smith, "A Response to Grant Palmer’s 'Sexual Allegations against Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Polygamy in Nauvoo'," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 12 (2014): 183-236 Note 3: "Van Wagoner likewise cites this source as "Benjamin F. Winchester." Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 4."
  30. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy, 4–5; citing Anthony Metcalf, Ten Years Before the Mast (N.p.: n.p., n.d.), 72 [published 1888].
  31. "History of Joseph Smith Continued," Times and Seasons 4/3 (28 October 1842): 41; see also Smith, History of the Church, 1:90.
  32. "Webb is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He is a graduate of Wabash College and earned his PhD at the University of Chicago before returning to his alma mater to teach. Born in 1961 he grew up at Englewood Christian Church, an evangelical church. He joined the Disciples of Christ during He was briefly a Lutheran, and on Easter Sunday, 2007, he officially came into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church."
  33. Stephen H. Webb, "Godbodied: The Matter of the Latter-day Saints (reprint from his book Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter (Oxford University Press, 2012)," Brigham Young University Studies 50 no. 3 (2011). (emphasis added)